One of the strongest and strangest phenomena in human affairs is the substitution of imaginary for real concerns - what is variously called displacement, projection, idolatry, fetishism and so on. The worship of images of various kinds avoids the need to deal directly with reality, in religious, political, social, economic and personal life. In our allegedly rational society, this is expressed in especially irrational ways - obsession with sport, glorification of singers, sanctification of icons, celebration of the millennium, commemoration of anniversaries. On the political left it has recently appeared in such bizarre ways as resurrecting the Communist Manifesto because it happened to be published 150 years ago or recalling of the so-called "events" in France because they happened to have occurred 30 years ago.
Verso, the book-publishing imprint of the old New Left Review, has produced expensive paperback reprints of two books of that time that would have been better forgotten. Jill Neville was a delightful person who somehow preserved the spirit of the 1960s better than anyone else until her death last year, but she was not an important writer and The Love Germ is not an interesting book. It is little more than "a La Ronde of VD", as one of its characters says. There is a new preface by Fay Weldon, rather factitiously emphasising the feminist moral of the book.
Angelo Quattrocchi was living with Neville in Paris in 1968 and was the model for the extremely unpleasant central male character in The Love Germ. His rhetorical journalistic account of the events was quickly published together with Tom Nairn's portentous Marxist analysis of them as a cheap paperback with the silly title The Beginning of the End.
The trouble is that there have been several far better descriptions and discussions of the subject, especially in French, and the revival of this particular book is not kind to either author. There is a new preface by Tariq Ali rather desperately attempting to establish the book's significance, but the hard fact is that what happened was not even the end of the beginning.
Ali himself has written a series of insignificant books of politics and also of fiction during the past 30 years, and he and Susan Watkins have now produced 1968: Marching in the Streets, which he describes as "simply a political calendar of 1968", in effect a picture book of each month of that year. There is an ambitious journalistic commentary, which is full of facts and illustrations and is very well designed and rather well written, but it is marred by such carelessness as a ludicrous reference to "Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee" or a wildly inaccurate account of the origin of May Day, and is ruined by the ideological idiocy that confuses every kind of so-called revolutionary activity on the so-called left.
The rebels of Paris and Prague are somehow identified with one another and also assimilated with the dictators who then ruled (and still rule) Cuba or North Vietnam, a clown like Mick Jagger is taken seriously for writing "Street Fighting Man" and an agitator like Ali himself is mentioned without any comment. Much of the commentary is taken from Black Dwarf, a Marxist paper of the time, and the revival of these pieces is not kind to any of their authors. The book is pervaded by a naive and sentimental view of revolt that encourages warm feelings but discourages clear thought.
A great deal of documentation is provided about radical movements around the world, but confidence in its reliability is shaken by the distorted historical perspective, which depends on Marxist formulas (although Ali seems to have abandoned his former fundamentalism), and by the selective coverage of radical activity in Britain before he came on to the scene, ignoring the anti-militarist movement that preceded his efforts (and which he helped to sabotage). He condemns "the absurd posturing and in-fighting of far-left sects, each claiming the mantle of Lenin or Trotsky or Mao", without alluding to his own part in this activity, and he condemns "mindless, sub-anarchist hostility to the state", without considering the applicability of this attitude to many of the events of 1968.
Ali, contradicting Karl Marx, says that "history does not repeat itself, either as tragedy or farce"; it does, as fetish. One of the most serious omissions from 1968: Marching in the Streets is any consideration of the ideas of the Socialisme ou Barbarie or Internationale Situationniste "groupuscules", the mainly French organisations that said the most penetrating things before, during and after 1968. From their perspective this book is not a manifesto or even a memorial, but a spectacle. The real situations lie out there in the real world of daily life and the struggle for autonomy and autogestion (self-management), far from the fantasy worlds of sub-Marxist radical chic or of what may be called "academedia".
The final judgement must be that there are things that are worth saying about the revolutionary or quasi-revolutionary events of 30 years ago, as about the revolutionary or pseudo-revolutionary movements of the past 150 years, but that none of these books says any of them. Their significance, so far as they have any, is as symptoms of the intellectual bankruptcy of the European left and the political vacuity of the British media.
Nicolas Walter is an independent scholar who was there, too.
The Beginning of the End
Author - Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn
ISBN - 1 85984 290 9
Publisher - Verso
Price - £9.00
Pages - 149